Tuesday, 13 February 2018
National Broadband Plan: Statements
I thank Seanad Éireann for the invitation to address the House on the national broadband plan, NBP. I am sure this House strongly supports the overarching objective of the NBP to provide this basic necessity to every premises in Ireland. It is a vital utility that is fundamental to sectors, including business, education and agriculture, and a key element for social and economic development.
Senators will no doubt be aware of the recent Dáil debates and media coverage on the NBP arising from Eir's decision to withdraw from the procurement process. They will have received copies of all the relevant correspondence and comprehensive briefing documents. I would like to reaffirm today that the NBP remains a top priority of Government and a personal commitment from me to put every placename in every county on the digital map. The NBP procurement team and I are confident that the process can continue and will achieve an outcome that will deliver high-speed broadband throughout Ireland as efficiently as possible.
While at this point the NBP procurement team has a single bidder following the withdrawal of two bidders for commercial reasons, the remaining consortium led by SSE-Enet is an experienced consortium with international expertise. It has already identified its final issues for discussion with the Department's team and this list was submitted some weeks ago while competition remained in the process.
A narrative that has emerged is that the procurement process is overly-onerous and complex. Of course, this is an onerous and complex process as we will be spending hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers' money to deliver a future-proofed, high-speed broadband network throughout the country.
The competitive dialogue procurement procedure which we are using is common practice internationally for projects of this nature and complexity. It enables, not inhibits, greater participation throughout the process. The procurement process opens up a dialogue with selected candidates in order to identify and define the means best suited to deliver a national broadband plan. It is important to point out that a bidder cannot go backwards on matters.The competitive dialogue procedure was also used for the procurement of the next generation broadband project in Northern Ireland and the BDUK superfast broadband project in Oxfordshire, and is used for public private partnerships in Ireland.
I understand the frustration of people who are watching the procurement process and waiting for it to conclude but who, in the meantime, are left without access to high-speed broadband, and I thank them for their patience. I can assure Members that I will not let this procurement process continue for one minute longer than is absolutely necessary. As the procurement process proceeds through the final stages, I will ensure that this House and its Members are regularly updated on the progress in delivering the objectives of the national broadband plan.
The State-led intervention and its procurement process is one element of the multifaceted national broadband plan working together to deliver a digital Ireland. The plan aims not just to intervene in the market but also stimulate commercial investment. To date, commercial investment of €2 million is continuing to deliver improved broadband services every single day, reducing Ireland's digital divide. That increased level of investment by commercial operators certainly has been influenced by the commitments outlined in the national broadband plan.
When I first took office, just over five in every ten premises had broadband. At the end of last year, that was nearly seven in every ten and, by the end of 2018, it will be nearly eight in every ten. By the end of 2018, it is envisaged that 79% of the population, 87% of schools and 96% of business parks will have access to high-speed broadband. In the past 12 months alone, new telecommunications infrastructure has been delivered to over 280,000 premises providing high-speed broadband services of up to 1 Gbit per second download speeds. In addition, the Eir rural 300,000 roll-out will deliver high-speed broadband to 810,000 people, one third of farms in the country and over 1,000 schools by the end of this year.
I appreciate that the increase in commercial investment is of little solace to the 990,000 or so citizens who will not be served by those commercial operators. However, the State intervention and the procurement process will provide those citizens with high-speed broadband access, regardless of location, and that will be future proofed for the next 25 years.
The intervention area will provide broadband to: 542,000 postal addresses; 990,000 citizens or 21% of the population; 381,000 members of the labour force; 52,057 farms or 61% of the total number of farms; 47,096 small and medium businesses, primarily micro-business; 437 or 13% of schools; and 310 business parks or 4% of the national total of business parks.
Significant progress is also being made across a number of areas to ensure efficient and effective delivery of the national broadband plan. I established the mobile phone and broadband task force in July 2016 in line with a commitment I had written into A Programme for A Partnership Government. The task force identifies solutions to potential obstacles faced by the roll out of the national broadband plan and aims to facilitate faster delivery of mobile and wireless broadband solutions across rural Ireland. In fact, the actions taken through the task force report will lead in the coming weeks to very significant announcements by both wireless and mobile operators who are looking to expand the network of broadband services across rural Ireland in the very short term. The task force's annual report will be published shortly and will identify the significant achievements made to date, including the positive impact of the broadband officers operating in each county and local authority.
In addition, there are other initiatives under way to maximise and enhance existing connectivity. For example, the release of the 3.6 GHz 5G capable spectrum in May 2017 will enable operators to provide faster fixed wireless and mobile services to customers and, as I said, I expect significant announcements on that in the coming weeks. A total of €8 million is currently being invested to facilitate the reallocation of the 700 Mhz spectrum away from TV broadcasting to support broadband and mobile telephony plans in rural areas. This means that valuable spectrum band is being freed up to deliver better mobile data services in rural areas.
As this process concludes I will ensure that Members of this House are kept up to date. I will continue to arrange special information sessions for Deputies and Senators as I have done on three occasions in the past ten months. I will ensure also that citizens can get information on the availability of high-speed broadband through my Department’s website, the dedicated in-box, including in particular the interactive high-speed broadband map.
The national broadband plan will deliver high-speed broadband to all premises throughout Ireland, both urban and rural. Although it has been a challenging and complex process, it is coming to an end. The Government and the Department remain committed to concluding this procurement process and we are confident that we will achieve a robust, future-proof contract that will enable the efficient roll-out of high-speed broadband throughout the country.
For the information of Members, this matter was to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and is to adjourn not later than 6.15 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and that to all other Senators not to exceed five minutes. The next speaker is Senator Terry Leyden, who has eight minutes.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I suppose he would prefer not to be here because this is not a happy situation. In 2011, the Government promised to deliver fibre broadband to 90% of homes by 2015 and the 2012 national broadband plan committed the Government to provide 100% broadband provision by 2020. In 2016, Fine Gael committed to provide high-speed broadband to at least 85% of premises by 2018 and to 100% of premises by 2020. As a former Fine Gael Deputy elected in 2011, although he is no longer a Fine Gael-----
The Minister can wait his turn. I will try to speak louder and get closer to the microphone. The Minister was a Minister in 2016 but he was not a Fine Gael Minister. I believe he was handed a very difficult task. The Minister accepted that task and, fair dues to him, he had high aspirations about what he could achieve. The Taoiseach at the time probably knew it was a hot potato, so to speak, when he handed it to him and said, "Here. Take it and run with it". However, what has happened in the past 17 years since all those promises were made is a sorry state of affairs. What he has lost now, however, with the withdrawal of Eir, is a very serious player because it controls much of the hardware including poles and so on throughout the countryside, which I believe will be required for the roll-out of broadband. Like Lee Harvey Oswald, the Minister could be the patsy in this situation and might be blamed for something for which he is not responsible. I hope the Fine Gael-led Government is giving him support in that regard because it appears to me that it is a series of disasters. The Minister is now down to one tenderer. All the deadlines were missed and now he has refused to provide a date by which the contract will be awarded. It will take a further three to five years to build the network. The Taoiseach stated recently that the Government would seek to have 75% of homes connected by the end of 2018. Essentially, the Government is abandoning homes where State support is needed.
In his contribution, the Minister said that 900,000 citizens are affected. He further stated that, in addition, the Eir roll-out to 300,000 premises will deliver high-speed broadband to 810,000 people, one third of farms and over 1,000 schools. In respect of farms, the Minister might inform his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, that it is very difficult for farmers - the Minister has disappeared. He was in his seat one minute and, like a rabbit out of a hat, there is a Minister of State in his place. Without bid or say, he was gone.
I was in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in 1982 and we delivered automatic telephones throughout the length and breadth of this country. We installed approximately 100,000 a year at the time. It was a big operation but we got down to it. I find that a coalition Government and a Fianna Fáil Government have a different philosophy.
He will be lucky if he does not lose the third one the way things are going because decisions are not being made in that regard.
To give the Minister an idea of what happened in the past, when we were last in government, which is a while ago now, we provided broadband to 234,000 homes and businesses across the country. We met 100% of the target at that time, and we must remember that technology was different then. We have been consistently appalled by the neglectful stance the Government has taken towards the provision of broadband to rural homes and businesses, which are struggling to survive in an increasingly digital era.
Last week in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil brought forward a motion to remind the Government of the broken commitments to rural Ireland and called for a swift review of the tendering process to date. That motion was passed with cross-party support. It is very important that there be an evaluation of what is going on at present.
The Government's national rural broadband roll-out is a shambles. The tendering process started in 2015 - three years ago - and it has dragged its heels. Two bidders have withdrawn and there is now only one bidder remaining in the process, namely, Enet. Will Enet have access to the Eir network? We do not know what negotiations are taking place. In September 2017, SIRO, a collaboration between ESB and Vodafone, withdrew owing to the lengthy and complicated tendering process, something which should have triggered alarm bells for the Government at the time. In January 2018, Eir, another large and experienced operator, pulled out of the process.
Fianna Fáil supports the roll out to all households and businesses of access to fibre-optic broadband capable of providing up to 1 Gbit per second in download speeds. It is essential infrastructure. Fibre broadband to homes is key to bridging rural Ireland's digital deficit. In some rural areas companies are already deploying fibre-optic cable rather than copper in the final connection between local exchanges and households and businesses.
In light of developments in the future, and the deep concern relating to Brexit, there is nothing more important for rural and urban areas, and industry, than ensuring that we have the most efficient and effective broadband system in the world. I am afraid this Government is incapable of delivering that. It is likely that the general election will be over and gone, when Fianna Fáil will probably play a role in the next Government and we will deliver.
It is good to see the Minister of State, a fellow Galway man, and I thank him for coming to the House. I will speak on two main areas in respect of broadband and the earlier statement by the Minister, Deputy Naughten.
First, the World Economic Forum has rated Ireland as No. 24 in the world in global competitiveness. It is not bad but not near enough to where we should be. The biggest challenge we face, according to the World Economic Forum, is infrastructure and a big part of that is broadband, along with transport. The second factor is our tax rates. I know that the Government is working on that and I appreciate it. The third factor is Government bureaucracy and fourth is access to finance. These are four key areas for us to work on. This evening we are discussing broadband and the challenges we face.
Second, a minimum of 30 Mbps is the standard we are looking for. There are 15 counties in Ireland in which less than 50% of premises are connected to broadband at this level. For example, there is Mayo, Waterford, Galway, the midlands.
Roscommon. It is a very significant issue for business. I have to hand a map produced by the European Regional Development Fund from 2017. It says there are 2.3 million premises in Ireland of which 1.4 million, a little more than 50%, can now access high-speed broadband services. The vast majority of those who do not have it are outside the Pale, that is, are outside Dublin. I note that 80% of small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, that failed during the recession were outside Dublin. I am not fighting with the Minister of State, or the Department or the Government - far from it - but I am stating the key, critical reason to drive this on as a key Government initiative. I have said before that I and others will support the Government in respect of developing that.
The area marked amber on the map to which I refer represents target areas in the State intervention. One can see how much is in the area; it is the vast majority of the country. I did not make this point; this was published by the European Regional Development Fund in the middle of last year.
Those are comments but I have one question. Reliability in broadband is critical. There is no point in having broadband unless it is reliable. It is essential that the Minister of State and his team ensures that we have good reliability for the whole of Ireland. Can he tell us the cost per household or per premises of the installation and the overall cost to the State because we now have only one tenderer in the procurement process? I felt sorry for the Minister when the announcement was made one afternoon a couple of weeks ago that Eir had pulled out. No Minister wants to deal with issues like that and it is not easy.
The world I live in involves a lot of key performance indicators, KPIs. The Minister's speech mentioned some figures, and he stated "By the end of 2018, it is envisaged that 79% of the population, 87% of schools and 96% of business parks will have access to high-speed broadband". With respect, 96% of business parks does not mean a lot to businesses because only a fraction of 1% of all businesses will be located in business parks. It is SMEs and businesses, such as those in Moycullen and Spiddal in Connemara, which employ three, four, five or six people, which are the engine of our economy, particularly in rural Ireland. I ask that the Government focus particularly on that area, not just the business parks. That means nothing to me.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to the House for this debate on broadband and its future in Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, had to leave for a Cabinet sub-committee meeting but earlier he outlined his vision for the sector and how he intends to address the challenges for us all as a country.
I cannot continue without mentioning the irony of listening to Senator Leyden, who represents Fianna Fáil, who criticised the current Government and Minister regarding the challenges in rolling out broadband when the fundamental reason, as we all know, is that it was his party which sold out Telecom Éireann with the essential infrastructure of the ducting, poling and networking 20 years ago, which I remember well.
That party at that time lacked vision and the understanding that this was vital infrastructure for Ireland's future. It is important to put that on record. Nor did Fianna Fáil stop there. Over later years, that party went on to fritter away the progress made in the Irish economy. It was in government when this economy was wrecked, when the construction sector was wrecked and when the banking sector was wrecked. Others have pointed out many reasons as to why broadband is not rolled to areas as it should be, of which access to credit was one. These are the problems created by Fianna Fáil and the legacy it has left this country. I have to correct Senator Leyden and note the irony and the cheek of his earlier contribution, in which he tried to lay the blame with this Government, which is investing in broadband, has corrected the economy and is bringing this country back to a par in managing its finances.
It is important to put that on record. I have no issue with the legitimate concerns expressed on why Eir withdrew from the recent procurement process which is ongoing. I understand that it was a commercial decision by the company. One must ask why a company such as Eir, which one would think had the capacity and ability to deliver, would do so. I point to the denuding of the asset base of that company over many years. If one considers the recent storm, when much of the Eir network took a battering the company is struggling to address, one can see in any part of the country that it does not have the capacity to fix the existing networks. It does not have the resources to reinvest in the existing networks. I keep pointing to the other semi-State that has been so successful, namely, ESB Networks, which in comparison, has invested enormously in every town, village and rural area in this country because it had a long-term vision of investment for the network. Unfortunately, we did not have the same in our telecommunications networks because the ground was sold out from under them. That is the fundamental reason why we do not have strong broadband connections in Ireland now.
As a Government representative, it is not good enough for me to point the finger of blame; we must point to solutions. That is why I have confidence in the Minister, Deputy Naughten, the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and in the Government, because they have a plan. They have the national broadband plan that will invest substantial millions of euro in reaching areas where the commercial operators cannot reach. That is to be welcomed. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, already pointed out that when he came into office a couple of years ago, five out of ten premises were connected to quality broadband. That figure will be nine out of ten premises in the next 18 months, which is to be welcomed, but it will only do so by continued investment and co-ordination of all assets and all resources, commercial, private and State, to ensure that the direct fibre connections, in so far as possible, can reach every home. Where direct fibre cannot be reached, we need to use other technologies, such as high-quality wireless technologies. Imagine is already rolling that out in many areas and has made substantial investment in that regard in County Waterford. SIRO, the ESB-Vodafone partnership, is also investing more than €450 million in reaching 500,000 regional homes and businesses.Eir is investing €200 million and has guaranteed that it will connect over 300,000 premises under that investment plan. The majority of these projects are in the regions and rural Ireland. Virgin Media, Imagine and many other providers are doing the same. It is important that the commitment by the previous Government in 2015 of over €275 million is invested in the national broadband plan. This Friday, I expect to hear that this sum is going to be substantially increased under the new national capital plan. We need that type of investment. We need that type of commitment from the very top down and we must provide certainty to the relevant agencies and to people of rural Ireland - citizens of this country - that the State is behind them.
We all understand that we have a substandard broadband network. We all know the reasons for that, but now it is time for all of us to put our shoulders to the wheel to ensure that we deliver a fit-for-purpose, modern broadband network that will serve the needs of our citizens, agricultural businesses and rural areas and the regions into the future. I have confidence that this Government and this Minister can achieve that.
I wish I shared Senator Coffey's confidence. I spent yesterday in Mayo and I could not do something as simple as send an email all day. The truth is that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have failed people in the context of broadband. The facts speak for themselves.
We have announcement fatigue. In 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, under Fianna Fáil, and right through the Fine Gael Governments up to today, the fact is that promises have not been delivered upon year after year. Fianna Fáil's motion on broadband was passed in the Dáil last week, but I was surprised that it placed such emphasis on the dangers of privatisation. The dangers associated with the privatisation of telecommunications became a reality in 2000 when one of the key pieces of state-wide infrastructure, Telecom Éireann, was privatised. That was done under a Fianna Fáil Government and it was the start of the rot. It is as simple as that. That is factual. From then on, any planned expansion of the communications network or necessary upgrade work was at the mercy of shareholders and at the whim of the markets. If Fianna Fáil is so good at doing business now, perhaps it would go out and beg the French billionaire who now owns our vital infrastructure to give it back. The ownership of that infrastructure has gone right around the world. We knew we were going to lose control of it but to sell, at that vital time, our country's main telecommunications system was bizarre in the extreme. If I live to be 120, I will never be able to figure that one out.
Sinn Féin has repeatedly warned the Government about fundamental flaws in the procurement system it has been operating and about its determination to hand over control of this project to private interests. There is a chance to roll back on this now, however. The Sinn Féin amendment to the Dáil motion last week called for the remainder of the roll-out of broadband to be placed in State ownership. We also want to explore the feasibility of using existing State infrastructure held by the ESB for the future roll-out of broadband. Has the Minister of State considered using the gas pipelines, the railways and the backhaul lines serving the metropolitan area networks as possible infrastructure which could be used in the remaining roll-out of the national broadband plan?
Where does the process stand now? We hear announcements regarding the levels of coverage from time to time, but the fact is that the roll-out has only benefited commercial premises so far. We are still at the mercy of commercial entities as to whether we get this vital service. In the absence of the roll-out of the national broadband plan, 61% of farms are outside existing high-speed coverage areas, 437 schools are relying on slow connections and broadband black spots are present in 96% of the land mass of the State.
Those of us who are members of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach spent the earlier part of this afternoon with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe,who told us all about eGovernment and the plans in that regard. Those plans are absolutely not compatible with the reality. It will lead to large part of the country becoming marginalised. We heard from representatives of the banking sector last week who stated that 21% of people do not or cannot do online banking. Very vulnerable communities are being marginalised and we really need to take notice of that. I am of the view that eGovernment should be put on hold until we have proper broadband to ensure that it is inclusive and is not socially and economically excluding vast areas and vast numbers of citizens within the country. In Mayo, the withdrawal of Eir means that 37,046 premises, which are in the AMBER premises intervention sector, are now in complete limbo. This is in a county where one cannot rely on regular, uninterrupted access to high-speed broadband. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for people living in the areas affected. We wait and wait and promises are made, but we are absolutely sick of it at this stage.
The reason we agreed with the call for a review of the entire plan is that we genuinely think that there are Ministers in Government who are not aware of the dire circumstances that we are now left in. Are there any guarantees in place for these premises, given that the Government is effectively no longer in control of the bidding process, which now has only one bidder involved? I am afraid that in the desperate rush to save the plan, the Government is prepared to settle for a lesser overall plan. Are there any plans to require all future providers of broadband, including anything that emerges from the wreckage of the current process, to ensure minimum connection speeds? It is not good enough to simply connect people if they cannot then download and upload what they need. For every week and month that an area is without a broadband connection, especially in the rural areas, there are countless business and employment opportunities missed. We are haemorrhaging job opportunities because we do not have broadband. That applies to people who are moving back to rural communities from abroad or people who are interested in setting up new businesses.
At its meeting earlier today, the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach was informed that there are plans to greatly increase the digitisation of State services, such as those, for example, relating to passport renewal. How will this interruption to the roll-out of the national broadband plan affect the planned digitisation of even more State services? Has the Minister of State considered enhancing the role of local post offices, which could act as points of first connection to high-speed broadband? I really believe that a post office with high-speed broadband could offer more State services and act as a local roll-out point and a hub for the future. It would also ensure the sustainability of post offices going forward. We should be considering a measure such as that.
I welcome my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Kyne. It is great to have him back in this House. I also acknowledge at the outset the degree to which the Minister of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, has sought to brief, explain and meet with groups, how participative he has been and how thoroughly and democratically he has gone about his business over the last couple of weeks. It is very impressive how he sought to brief us and to meet us and listen to all of the interest groups. I am very proud to be on the relevant committee of the Oireachtas.
Providing broadband to every house and premises in this country is an ambition of mammoth proportions. It is a worthy ambition, and is something of which to be very proud. We should not be negative about this. We should be proud that we are setting such a high goal of achievement for the country. It is equivalent to rural electrification. The biggest roadblock it has encountered to date is the selling off of Telecom Éireann by the then Fianna Fáil Government. In retrospect, that is clearly one of the obstacles with which we are dealing. It is not an insurmountable obstacle. The plan is going ahead and I am confident we will deliver the goods.From listening to Senator Conway-Walsh one would almost get the impression that there has not been a huge amount of achievement. It is important to put on the record that at present, 71% of premises and houses right across the country have broadband. Moreover, 79% will have it by the end of this year and 87% of all schools have broadband. That is an extraordinary and good situation to be in.
It is also important to note that Eir is committed to delivering to the 300,000 premises to which it has a contractual commitment to deliver and we have been informed by the Minister that will go ahead promptly and is progressing as we speak. That is a very important aspect of the plan. It is important to note that Enet-SSE has already set out its prices to deliver to the missing 542,000 postal addresses in the country. I would like the Minister to clarify that situation. The public would like to hear that Enet will deliver. I am confident it will and it wants to set itself up as a success. The public also want to know that it will do it at the price stated in its initial procurement proposal. I understand that will be the case.
I mentioned the successes to date. I would like to record the successes in my native county of Cavan.
It is a relevant example of what we have achieved. Some 17,664 premises have been connected in Cavan and a further 7,329 will be connected by the end of this year. Some 17,664 premises remain to be connected to high-speed broadband, which is too many. We want to get that done and that is why I am speaking about this issue and want assurances from the Minister. I am, however, confident that will happen. I want to be sure that we will do that.
The Minister should reassure Members that Enet-SSE will be held to its universal social obligation to go into the hills and backwoods areas in order to make sure that every citizen of this country gets broadband. I also want assurance that we will have control over its programme of activity and will know how, when and where it is being rolled out and what it is doing. Some of the infrastructure has been put in place in each county for that, which is very important. If the Minister were provide those assurances that would be particularly helpful.
What this will mean for the country merits repetition. It will mean students can study at home or in any location in the country. It will mean significant improvement for farmers and that business can be localised. It has enormous potential for the country and it is the most exciting plan. I need the Minister to tell us it will happen fast and at no extra cost. I ask the Minister to comment on how Eir will be required to give up its poles and infrastructure for use in the provision of broadband, and assure us that nothing will be held back and the pricing will not be exorbitant.
I want to make a few observations because this is not necessarily my area of expertise. Eir's shareholders are designed to get out every few years and renegotiate. I am not surprised by that because when Eir plagiarised the murmuration of starlings to use in its advertising I knew we were dealing with people who really could negotiate. The ESB is a very well run company and very well respected. However, it is the third most expensive power company of the EU's 27 member states. Maybe it should spend its money figuring out how to drive down the cost of power which would be good for Ireland, industry and entrepreneurs rather than spending it on telecoms.
On Enet, it is a truly public-private partnership. It has spent €100 million since it came to Ireland and last year it provided fibre to more premises in three months than SIRO has since its inception. The reason I mention this is because I think there might be a diamond left here. There is a majesty about being the last man standing. The last man standing is Mr. McCourt. He is a wonderful media, telecoms and technological pioneer. He is the owner of Enet. I have read a lot about him in siliconrepublic.com. There was a brilliant write-up about our national broadband, the Irish Government and what will happen next. The whole thing was very well done by Mr. John Kennedy. Mr. McCourt is an entrepreneur with extraordinary skills and accolades. He is also part of Granahan McCourt and chairs Satellite Holdings, LLC. He is understood to be collaborating with Warren Buffett.
I say all this because sometimes the last man standing is probably the best. I have very little faith in Eir as an ordinary person with a telephone in my house. The ESB is far too expensive and together with SIRO, has got out of the bidding process. Eir is out. Enet has been left standing and I think Mr. McCourt is the man for the job. It is just an observation.
I know there has been an impasse and the situation is difficult. We are trying to get broadband across the country. I suggest that Senators read siliconrepublic.comand learn about the person who is going to take over, in whom I have absolute faith.
I will take up what Senator O'Reilly said. I would like to hear whether the original price of the procurement will remain the same as Enet had in the beginning. It comes with great faith and without a legacy. As Mr. McCourt said:
If the competition is non-political [which it is now] we have a good chance. We are in the business of doing exactly what the National Broadband Plan sets out to do and we have perfected the partnership model.
He also said:
A little-known fact is that Berkshire Hathaway has never sold a company it has bought, ever. It invests in good companies and keeps them for the long run. ... We are a 100pc wholesale open-access player focused on the long term.
Senator Leyden should listen to that.
He said he keeps the company for the long run and does not sell it overnight when nobody is looking. This is a majestic diamond. I wish the Minister luck in negotiating with Enet. I think it is going to be excellent. It has been a tough impasse for the Government, but the outcome and result with Mr. David McCourt will be excellent.
I will be brief. I want to contribute to the debate. I refer to delays which have taken place and obstacles of the past six or seven years, which are rooted in the selling off Eircom as a number of other speakers have said. Along with those obstacles, there has been a growing need in business, education and industry for broadband. As other speakers have said, plans will be announced next Friday but the biggest thing which could unlock the potential of rural and urban Ireland is the roll-out of broadband.
When Eir pulled out of the process a couple of weeks ago there was a collective view that it was a case of "Here we go again". I was glad that the Minister came out quickly and reassured us that the process was still on track. As Chairman of the committee which dealt with this issue during the lifetime of the previous Government, I am aware at first hand of the significant investment of time, money and expertise put into getting this right for once and for all, and not over-promising but delivering.I welcome the decision to go ahead with the process. Enet-SSE are very competent. Enet provided the metropolitan area network, MAN, in Claremorris, County Mayo, which has been very successful. There was a Fianna Fáil motion on this issue in the Dáil last week but I have no doubt if the Minister had said he would have a review to see how to proceed, there would have been other motions to say it has been held up long enough and asking why can we not go ahead with it. We have gone past playing political football with this. I always had good time for Senator Leyden, who is a very experienced Member of this House but his contribution today was not appropriate, to put it mildly. We need to get this sorted out and I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, will get it right once and for all and let us not hear any more about rural and urban divides in this country.
Since Eir has dropped out as a bidder there has been much wringing of hands, not in woe but in glee, by the Opposition. This is too serious to be a political football. I must also correct Senator Leyden on a point of fact, the great national broadband scheme that Fianna Fáil implemented was an absolute failure and a waste of money. That scheme was rolled out to many electoral districts near where I live, including Attymass, which was identified as needing State intervention. The measure of success was that if one house in the electoral district could be said to be connected, the rest were deemed to have access if they chose to have it. In reality, however, one could have been connected up and had access but all the other houses might not. There might be a drumlin between one house and another. That was the national broadband scheme that Fianna Fáil presided over, which Senator Leyden was praising. He should come down to Mayo where I will introduce him to all the people who were given false promises by Fianna Fáil.
This should not be made into a political football because we are talking about the most disadvantaged areas in the country. It is not just that people cannot get online and it is nice to get online, but that it affects people's households, families and businesses. If we are to fulfil our ambition to make rural Ireland sustainable, the beginning, middle and end of that is broadband. It connects us to the global economy and that is where we have positioned ourselves. This is a small open economy and we must have that access. A lot of work has been done and we have to drive on with this. Reviewing and slowing it down is an absolute nonsense at this juncture.
There has been a bidding process and to date it has been a valid process. It allows for a single remaining bidder. There is nothing not catered for or envisaged in the process as it has happened. In a perverse way there could be an advantage to what has happened because, instead of having to go around to several bidders that had been validated, the State now has to deal with one bidder. It can cut to the chase, say what it wants and how it will get it done. This bidder will either do it or not. Parameters have already been established.
I agree with several previous speakers that it must be set out in black and white that Enet and the consortium will not hike up prices and I believe there is provision in the whole process for that. The Minister of State might send out that signal loud and clear. That has to be the most serious and legitimate concern about the process and the Government will not be fleeced for this. I do not believe it will be.
This dumbing down of the consortium, Enet-SSE-Airtricity is nonsense. The consortium is a serious contender and must always have been seen as the possible successful bidder notwithstanding all the propaganda from Eir. It has professionalism, know-how, innovation and the finances to back it up. I have had some dealings with Enet, which is a private company but has an exemplary track record in delivering public contracts, and I can speak for that in respect of Mayo. There are six towns in Mayo, Ballina, Kiltimagh, Claremorris, Belmullet, Castlebar and Knock, around the airport. Enet has rolled out MANs, which were innovative technology at the time, and, notwithstanding that some of these MANs have been there for several years, there is still capacity on them. As a wholesale provider it has given everyone a fair crack of the whip. It has a track record. There are two global businesses in Claremorris that operate through the MANs, CBE Software and Delta Dental, which have gone out of their way to praise the work of Enet. SSE-Airtricity has a good track record in rural Ireland, compared with many of the other renewable energy companies. Let us have faith and drive on. The Minister should get down to the nuts and bolts with Enet and the consortium as soon as possible, sort out what needs to be done and go on and let us get our long overdue broadband.
All the speakers today made this a political football because everybody was hitting off one another. There is a massive divide in rural Ireland because of broadband. We live in a digital era where we depend on broadband, in schools, businesses and farming. We need to work together today to create and make sure rural Ireland is not forgotten. Everybody here today forgets that there is a massive divide. Rural Ireland has been forgotten in the national framework plan to 2040.
If we do not get broadband sorted we will have a massive problem. Timing is going to be crucial. People shop online, everything is on Facebook and is accessible by phone. We need to make sure we deliver broadband to rural Ireland as soon as possible. When will that be delivered, when will the commitment be given and what timescale is the Minister of State giving us today? That is the vital question. It does not matter what party anyone is in and I have heard all the Senators speak. When will it happen for the 542,000 houses and businesses in rural Ireland that have been totally forgotten?
This is a very important debate. Last Thursday, I thought Fianna Fáil was having a senior moment because it said it wanted the network brought back into public ownership without realising that it had sold it. This is a legacy problem.Regardless of whether they like it, the network should never have been sold.
Given that Fianna Fáil sold the network into public ownership, my comments can be made. At the end of the day, this is based not only on a previous action by Fianna Fáil to flog the family silver but also on a current action to effectively forget that. It is like a senior moment or a case of "Who shot JR?" when it comes to who sold the Eircom network.
Can I deal with the matter at hand? I do not want to give a history lesson but people cannot rewrite history. I will not allow that.
On the issue of broadband, I have a couple of questions for the Minister of State. First, Eir is committed to rolling out broadband for 300,000 customers. Where do matters stand in that regard? This is about getting people access to broadband. What is the position in terms of discussions with Enet to allow the further roll-out of rural broadband? More critically, where is the Government at in its discussions with Eir on the ability to use the network to ensure that it can roll out this broadband quickly?
I agree with previous speakers that broadband is now the modern equivalent of the ESB, and we have to roll it out. It is slightly different in that, in some cases, people can access wireless broadband but, in many instances, this is not fast enough. This applies on a myriad of levels, for example, in regard to family life people or working from home. Increasingly, people are spending a day at home or work three days away and two at home. This will allow people to go back and live in rural Ireland. It is the gateway. The key point is that this is about the logistics of rolling out broadband but it also about the finances.
First, Eir is committed to rolling this out for 300,000 customers. I will be frank with the Minister of State. Like other speakers, people are ringing me to say they are on the edge of the area served by Eir but that it will not cover them, which is frustrating. This is why we need to have this rolled out quickly, particularly as many of these are people with small businesses in rural areas. Second, when will there be agreement with Eir regarding the use of the network, which is critical? How much will it cost and will Eir abide by the prices that were laid down on day one? Third, what is the position on the negotiations with Enet in order to give transparency regarding how long it will take to roll this out and what are the areas to which it will be rolled out? There is a lack of certainty among the people. They ask, "When is my area going to get broadband?", or "Do I have to get wireless broadband?" The problem is that everyone talks about broadband in a very abstract way. Broadband is very real if a person is sitting at an iPad or computer, waiting hours for a document to download, or if the person cannot connect with high-end industry.
Those are my questions. I want to be balanced in this regard. We need to move this from being a negative to being a positive. Let us fast-forward the roll-out but, once again, we must remember the public purse is involved so we must get value for money.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Teachta Kyne. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, Teachta Naughten, as ucht an óráid ar dtús. This is a very important issue and it ill behoves Members of the House to politicise it or play it as a political football. This is not just about the disadvantage of rural Ireland; it is about all of Ireland. It is about ensuring that all people are connected and have the opportunity to work from home or have investment in all parts of Ireland. That is why the Government is committed to the national broadband plan. The hypocrisy of the Fianna Fáil Party last week illustrates why we are where we are today because of the failure of Mary O'Rourke et al. in that Government.
It is to connect all people and all homes, whether in Connemara, Bishopstown, Ballaghaderreen or elsewhere, to broadband. It is important that we do that. It is about ensuring that it is not just about rural Ireland. I want to give Senator Murnane O'Connor a small history and geography lesson. Approximately 9 km from Cork city, 2.5 km from the airport, is a state-of-the-art business park that gives employment and provides a haven for entrepreneurship and innovation. However, 2 km down the road, at Ballygarvan, there is very little in terms of broadband. It is not disadvantaged areas. The Senator should stop this mantra of rural Ireland-----
I understand people's frustration, including that of the Minister and the officials, regarding this broadband plan. What we must do is get it right. It is allowing the people who live in the 100 houses at Gleann Alainn to be able to have high-speed broadband so they can do what Senator Kieran O'Donnell spoke about, namely, take a day to work from home, put on Netflix and so on. That is why it is so important. It is about investing and getting it right.
If we want to have an honest conversation about where we stand, then the asset stripping of Eircom is a fundamental question that Fianna Fáil Members must address. They should look into their hearts and ask why Eircom was sold off and who benefited from the sale and from the asset stripping down the years. Look at what we have today: an ambitious plan by Government. Of course, we would all like to have multiple competitors willing to invest but we have an independent tendering process. If we did not have it, the Members opposite would come in here waving the Order Paper and calling for all kinds of tribunals. However, we do have it. We have a Minister and a Government willing to try to bring high-speed broadband to every home and then, as a consequence, into every community, so that we can create jobs.
Next Friday, we will announce the national development plan. Although I know the Senator does not like good news-----
Let us be honest about this. This is about the future. If Fianna Fáil is so serious about rural Ireland, it would not have voted against the Government last week in the Dáil and it would have supported us in ensuring that we have connectivity. I have every confidence that we will get a national broadband plan that will deliver high-speed broadband. However, the frustration of people is genuine. The people I spoke about are not made up; they are real people who live 9 km from Cork city, 4 km from Cork Airport, who have not got the speed and connectivity they should, although they are not in a disadvantaged rural area.
Please, let us use our language properly. Let us ensure that we have an ultimate response for the people whereby we can have investment and jobs that will allow for connectivity, the Internet and whatever anyone wants to have as part of every rural community, including those communities adjacent to cities.However, the history lesson does not wash with Members of the Opposition because they choose to forget.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I am delighted to be here. As the Minister, Deputy Naughten, highlighted, all Senators agree that high-speed broadband is a vital utility for continued economic development in both rural and urban areas across our country. It is clear from listening to the contributions of Senators that this House shares the strong desire of the Government to ensure that all areas, houses, premises, farms and businesses are connected to future-proofed and high-speed broadband and that it is delivered throughout Ireland as soon as possible.
The national broadband plan is not just about State intervention but, rather, combines a wide range of activities, some of which fall under my role as Minister of State. Under my portfolio, operators come to the table to engage with local authorities, the Department of Rural and Community Development and the mobile phone and broadband task force to identify issues and obstacles that arise as we embark on connecting all of Ireland. The report on activities for 2017 in that regard will be published next week. All local authorities have a dedicated broadband officer part-funded by my Department, other Departments and all stakeholders in the process, and the work of the broadband office is built on the foundations of the national broadband plan, which is at the core of this issue. The successes of those groups in terms of the work to improve efficiencies in planning applications, waivers in respect of development contributions for telecommunications development and the updating of planning exemptions are necessary measures to smooth the implementation of the roll-out. Work in those areas will continue and it is important to acknowledge that as a vital part of the national broadband plan.
As a rural Deputy representing Galway West, which includes parts of south Mayo and rural areas of Connemara, I remind the House that some of my constituents are frustrated with the lack of high-speed broadband in their areas. However, 80% of premises in my constituency will have access to high-speed broadband service by the end of this year. That figure would undoubtedly have been lower had the national broadband plan not been driving commercial investment in recent years. It is important to acknowledge that because there has been much commentary about Eir. Can it be said that Eir has delivered on broadband in recent years? Is there confidence that, absent a national broadband plan or the commitment of all parties in Dáil Éireann and the Government to push the national broadband plan, Eir would have delivered by now or would do so over the coming years? I cannot say it would.
However, it has delivered. Comment has been made on the contract entered into by the Government with Eir to deliver broadband to 300,000 houses. That is a commitment contract such that if Eir does not deliver connections to those premises, the State can fine it. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked about the number of houses that have been connected to date. Connections have been made to approximately 130,000 of the 300,000 houses.
It is hoped that the vast majority will be made by the end of this year but it is likely to roll into next year. Eir is fully committed to fulfilling those 300,000 connections in spite of its having pulled out of the national broadband plan.
Senator Leyden raised the issue of timelines for delivery. In the past 12 months, telecommunications infrastructure involving high-speed broadband with services of up to 1 GB per second download speed has been delivered to over 280,000 premises. The roll-out of connections to 300,000 premises will deliver for 810,000 people, one third of farms and over 1,000 schools. The completion of the procurement process for the national broadband plan is the only way to ensure the most efficient delivery of high-speed broadband to the people of Ireland.
Senator Ó Céidigh mentioned several areas in regard to competitive finance infrastructure, reliability and that it is critical to roll on with the process and connections. I accept that farmers, business people and others awaiting high-speed broadband are frustrated. The role and commitment of the Government is to delivery to the whole of society in the shortest possible timeframe, which is the key priority for the Government. The House will agree that is an admirable and worthy aim. As the Minister, Deputy Naughten, stated, the remaining bidder, Enet-SSE, is an experienced consortium with international experience, as stated by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, and it has re-affirmed its commitment to the national broadband plan project and its intention to deliver in that regard.
Senator Conway-Walsh discussed the national broadband plan. The procurement process is entering its final stage and it is for the bidder to promote its solutions and methodology for the roll-out of broadband. The remaining bidder, Enet-SSE, has demonstrated a technical financial methodology for delivery of the national broadband plan for both urban and rural Ireland. The completion of the procurement process is the most effective mechanism to deliver high-speed broadband, rather than possibly leading to its delay or similar. The preferred bidder will be identified by September of this year and the physical roll-out of high-speed broadband will commence in the amber areas following the signing of the contract.
Senator Joe O'Reilly raised the worthy ambition to connect all houses, with which all Members agree, and mentioned the sale of Telecom Éireann, as did Senator Coffey and others. In hindsight, the lock, stock and barrel sale of its infrastructure, poles and lines was a retrograde and regrettable decision. The Government has agreed that, with the Minister, Deputy Naughten, it will bring forward legislation to create certainty on infrastructural access and maintenance over the 25 years of the contract. The national broadband plan is not just about delivering for today or next year but, rather, delivering and being future-proofed for up to 25 years because, as we know, technologies change and advance with time. It is important that the contract includes a requirement on future-proofing, and that is part of the reason for the complexity and delay in that regard. We will bring forward proposed legislation intended to apply to all infrastructure owners where infrastructure is required for the delivery of the national broadband plan.
Several other Senators made contributions. Senator Coffey raised the issue of the commitment in the national planning framework which is due out on Friday. It is strange to hear commentary on a plan that has not yet been published. A draft plan was published a long time ago but there will be substantial changes to it because there has been substantial engagement in that regard by Senators and Deputies of all parties in recent months. There have been debates in this House on this very important project to be announced on Friday.
Senator Mulherin discussed the national broadband strategy, which provided for very basic broadband at the time and is not comparable to the roll-out of high-speed fibre broadband to homes that is now planned in most cases.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of the time of delivery. The plan is for the contract to be signed by September and that roll-out will then begin. Eir will be continuing with the contract to which it has committed, as will other private operators.
Senator Kieran O'Donnell raised the issue of Eir using the network and negotiations in that regard. This has been going on for a long time. Although SIRO had its own plans in that regard, usage of the Eir network formed part of all discussions that have taken place with Enet-SSE. When there was an initial consultation last September, the closing date of that stage, much information was brought forward by the bidders on their concerns regarding how they envisaged this going ahead. There was much analysis in that regard; the bidders highlighted their red lines and Eir made a decision thereafter. It is important to have full transparency of the process at all times. That has contributed to the delay because we do not want to end up in a situation whereby something is done or a contract is awarded but then has to be nullified or stalled because of an issue with the process. It is very important that everything is above board and that there is due process and transparency.It was not as though we could prevent commercial operators from operating during the recent period while we prepared a map to provide certainty about the areas, houses, farms and premises that need to be connected. Commercial investment was taking place at all stages while we were trying to finalise the map. During that time, Eir came in with the 300,000 houses and premises, which complicated the matter further. That was a commercial decision on the part of the company and the Government then had to make a decision. It signed a commitment contract with the company to ensure Eir stood by its commitment to connect the houses and take them out of the NBP.
The Minister had to attend a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on infrastructure, where no doubt this issue was discussed. We have had a number of debates on it in the other House. We understand and accept the frustrations of Members, and the importance of broadband for rural Ireland. That is why we are committed to ensuring that the contact is signed under the NBP, that the company carries out what is required of it, that all premises in the State have high speed broadband as soon as is practicable and that the State invests in the most rural areas to ensure no place is left out and will have the same opportunity as the most urban areas in the country and, indeed, the world have in respect of broadband provision.